General Alarm

By Michael Morse

"Attention, Engines 10, 11, 3; Ladders 5 and 1; Special Hazards; and Division 1: a still box."

I kept my ears tuned to the radio while I chopped some onions, waiting to hear from the 10s. It didn't take long.

"Engine 10 to fire alarm, heavy smoke condition."

I chopped a little faster. At the time, Engine 2 and Ladder 7 were the staging companies in Providence. I was on Engine 2 and knew that if there was a building fire we would be called. We caught a lot of fire in the early 1990s that way; as soon as we heard a still box come over the loudspeaker, the crews would head for the trucks. If it sounded good, we would be ready to roll when the first-in company called "CODE RED!"

"Roger, Engine 10; we have a report of smoke coming from the factory on Oxford Street."

"Roger that; Engine 10 on scene, Code Red, bang a second."

I put the knife down, set the onions aside, and headed for the pole. The rest of the crew waited on the ramp, looking south, over the high-rises that give Providence its distinctive look, and beyond. A giant plume of smoke rose from South Providence, and below that, the glow of fire. We geared up and started for the trucks, the radio in the background sending additional companies to Oxford.

"Attention, Engines 8, 11, 13; Ladders 2 and 6; Rescue 1; and Car 2: a second alarm."

Captain Crowley came down the stairs. He walked between Engine 2 and Ladder 7 and onto the ramp, looking south. I remember being frustrated. If he would get on the damn truck we might beat the second-alarm companies to the fire. His radio came on.

"Division 1 on scene, establishing Oxford command. General Alarm situation, send the companies in five-minute intervals."

"Roger, Division 1."

When it became obvious that the captain had no intention of getting into the truck with the rest of us, we got out and joined him on the ramp. The glow had grown--black smoke rising, resembling a sunset, only in the wrong place. It was six o'clock on a warm summer's night; the real sunset was two hours away.

His radio came on again.

"Attention, Engines 14, 6, 15; Ladders 4 and 8; Rescue 2: Respond to 178 Oxford Street, general-alarm fire."

"Hey, Cap, why are we waiting?" I asked.

"Did they teach you anything in the Division of Training?" was all he said.

They taught me a lot at the DOT. They taught me how to put out fires! This was bull. I had nearly a year on the job. I was ready!

Five minutes later, his radio again. "Attention, Engines 2, 5 12; Ladders 3 and 7: Respond to a general-alarm fire, 178 Oxford."

Finally. Fifteen seconds later, we were out the door, a minute later on the highway, and seven minutes after that we approached the scene. I had heard the saying, "We run into buildings when people are running out," but nothing prepared me for the sight of dozens of people running toward us, then past us, with all of their belongings on their backs. From my vantage point behind the driver, all I could see through the windshield was fire.

An abandoned mill covering two city blocks was fully involved. It rose five stories, and a clock tower rose another 50 feet above that. I stepped out of the cab into the intense radiant heat and got to work. We set up the deck gun, taking it off the mount on Engine 2, and hauled it some 500 feet closer to the fire building. The operation took about 15 minutes; we had to supply our own water.

Under the streets of Providence is an elaborate grid of water lines. Different hydrants are connected to different lines. We passed two perfectly good hydrants, in my expert opinion, and tied into one 800 feet away. When we finally did charge the deck gun, there was more than enough water to provide a steady stream nearly 150 feet into the seat of the fire. We moved the stream as needed, protecting exposures and cooling hot spots.

While we did our job, unglamorous as it was, the rest of the city's firehouses methodically emptied out and converged on the fire scene. Two exposures, both triple deckers on side 1 of the fire building, were engulfed in flames; Engine 12 and Ladder 3 put them out. I didn't get a chance to see that job, but it must have been incredible; the houses were still standing when the smoke had cleared.

Eventually, we got control of the fire. We cleaned up, and just under three hours after we were sent, we were right back where we started. I chopped onions, and the captain watched TV in the day room close by.

Over dinner, he explained what went on behind the scenes. The chief recognized the severity of the incident and called a general alarm. Rather than having all of our trucks converge on scene, we went when we were called, and while we were being sent into the fire, mutual-aid companies were being called to staff our stations. Our captain waited on the ramp patiently, overcoming his instinct to follow the fire and respond immediately.

Discipline, training, great chief officers, and excellent fire company officers turned a potentially catastrophic mill fire in a heavily populated city neighborhood into a controlled training exercise for about 90 firefighters. There were no casualties, there were a few minor injuries, and the shell of a once-thriving factory was still standing when the last companies left about eight hours after the fire had started.

A couple of kids lit some boxes on fire inside the place, the oil soaked floors got going, and it was a powder keg after that.

Learning about water supply, the incident command system, and hydraulics while in the academy was dry, to say the least. I never imagined that I would see the importance of what I learned in real time, with real fire, real victims, and the very real possibility of losing a big part of the city to one of nature’s most destructive forces.

In the next five years, I responded to three more mill fires--the Lincoln Lace Factory, the American Tourister fire, and a machine company on Sprague Street.

It was different, fighting those fires, knowing that we had a plan and experienced people to carry out that plan. The best part was, time had progressed, and I had become one of the experienced ones.

 

Michael Morse is a captain with the Providence (RI) Fire Department and the author of the books Rescuing Providence and Responding. His articles are nationally published and widely read. He lives in Warwick, Rhode Island with his wife, Cheryl.

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